Big Friday sale

Magic In Theory by Peter Lamont and Richard Wiseman

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2000)


The literature of magic theory theory is eccentric and uneven. Consider the range: masterworks like Maskelyne and Devant's Our Magic and Sam Sharpe's Neo-Magic; essentials that include Nelms' Magic and Showmanship and Fitzkee's Magic By Misdirection; erratic efforts like Ortiz' useful but relentlessly didactic Strong Magic along with Fitzkee's thoughtful but overly mechanistic The Trick Brain; and outright oddities like Oscar Teale's Higher Magic. Some of the best theoretical content is not set aside in works devoted entirely to theory, but rather incorporated into important books that include trick content as well, as in Tommy Wonder's Books of Wonder, throughout Eugene Burger's body of work, and, of course, in chapter two of Ganson's The Vernon Book of Magic—how many times have I read that?

Most such theoretical musings—whether success or failure or somewhere between, whether weightily constructed in many pages between hard-covers or daintily slipped into a barely noticed introduction or foreword—comprise worthy and valuable material, because they compel us to think more deeply about our art, to ask new questions or reconsider pat answers to older ones. Put simply, theory leads to thinking, and thinking is a practice of which magic could use a good deal more.

Now, two parapsychologists and "former professional magicians" from Great Britain have written Magic In Theory, an attempt to provide a contemporary overview of magicians' thinking about the psychology of deception as we apply it in our day-to-day work. In the first of five chapters (the sixth contains a series of bibliographies) the subject of how magic tricks work is addressed.

Virtually no secrets are exposed to the reader, which renders the book "safe" for non-magicians. The authors review the various efforts in the conjuring literature to systematically categorize effects and methodology, including of course Fitzkee's unwieldy but well-known list of 19 effects from The Trick Brain. The list the authors devise is similar but not identical to Sam Sharpe's excellent (and my preferred) list of six effect categories from Neo-Magic. After echoing Sharpe (and others) with their itemization of Appearance, Vanish, Transposition, and Transformation, they chose to limit Sharpe's more broadly conceived "Natural Laws Defied" to the specifics of Penetration and Restoration. They then add a category they dub "Extraordinary Feats," more typically related to fakir and sideshow stunts than to conjuring per se, although also embracing memory and mathematical demonstrations. They then complete their list with two additional categories, Telekinesis and Extrasensory Perception. In the former they choose to include effects like animation and levitation, which Sharpe included among Natural Laws Defied.

It appears that these selections serve the authors' interests in joining their categorization of effects to their discussion of methodology; however, for practicing magicians, such discussions are probably best dealt with independently—more often than not, it is useful to clarify our thinking about effects without being clouded by any consideration whatsoever of method. As a result, I find the classification of animation and levitation as psychokinetic effects a stretch at best, and consider it far more useful to conjurors to consider these as examples of the defiance of natural laws. Of course, one can quibble that all magic is a defiance of natural laws, but that is not an objection to the content of Sharpe's category so much as it is with the title.

In the chapter on misdirection the authors formulate this working definition: "Misdirection may be defined quite simply as that which directs the audience towards the effect and away from the method." [Emphasis per original.] One will quickly recognize Tommy Wonder's use of the word "direction" as a preferred substitute for misdirection, and indeed he is one of a number of prominent magicians interviewed by the authors, six of whom are pictured on the flap of the dustjacket: Lance Burton, Michael Weber, Max Maven, Mac King, Darwin Ortiz, and Mr. Wonder. Eventually the authors identify two major types of misdirection, namely physical and psychological: the one directing the spectator's attention, the other manipulating his thinking. Included in this chapter is reference to a wonderful concept of Dai Vernon's, provided here by John Carney (also interviewed), who describes Vernon's idea of "punctuation" in conjuring performance. Referred to only briefly here, this is a provocative idea that will stimulate further thought in many students. Although I had previously heard of this concept in oral discussion, this may be the first time Vernon's concept has seen print (with the possible exception of the Professor's long-running column in Genii).

The next chapter is an interesting one entitled "Reconstruction." Although not a term we often see in the literature of conjuring, since 1987 I have pointed out in my lectures that "The purpose of good construction is to prevent accurate reconstruction"—by the spectators, that is, of the trick's method. Herein, the authors discuss why certain methods are readily dismissed or even not considered at all by spectators; the lack of an audience's special-iced knowledge of science or conjuring; implausibility of methods (sometimes the audience simply rejects the notion that we work as hard as we do to fool them!); mis-remembering of effects (as in David Devant's famous example of apparently littering the stage with apples when actually only a few were produced)—a process which occurs both naturally and under the active direction of the con-juror; and the use of "methodological diversity," or what is more commonly referred to as "canceling." Appropriately, Juan Tamariz (who was also inter-viewed) and his Theory of False Solutions receive attention here.

Since the authors are bona-fide par psychological researchers —and apparently rationally skeptical ones at that—they bring some firsthand knowledge to their chapter concerning the differences between magicians and pseudo-psychics. They recount all the many advantages the psychic performer puts to use in hoodwinking his audience and supporting phony claims, advantages which magicians generally lack once they have clearly identified themselves as honest charlatans, in the tradition of their more honorable profession. The distinctions addressed here are limited to the use of conjuring psychology, however, and not to the vastly different social contracts that exist between the magician and his audience versus that of the con artist and his targets.

I found the chapter entitled "Conjuring Theory in Perspective" particularly interesting, especially the authors' attempts to reconcile what appear to be glaring differences between competing schools of conjuring theory. The best example of this is their examination of Jerry Andrus' rejection of misdirection versus its general embrace in the larger community; they insightfully resolve this dispute (at least partially) by concluding that Mr. Andrus actually seems to object primarily to physical misdirection rather than psychological, and indeed, most conjurors would warn against heavy-handed abuse of physical misdirection in favor of the subtleties of effective psychological techniques.

They do not repair all such conflicts—noting, for example, John Carney's rejection of the Retention Vanish because it draws the audience's focus at the wrong moment. Further consideration of this issue might also have revealed some insights and reconciliation, however; there may be a difference, for example, between the use of only one or two false transfers in the course of a given routine, in which case each one should probably be misdirected to sonic degree, and using Rothian material that requires many false transfers, during which time it might be wise to allow the audience to watch a perfect Retention Vanish at least once, if only to assist in encouraging them to relax their attention during subsequent repetitions.

Other valuable ideas in this chapter include the admonition to the lay reader that this volume will not equip them to see through most competently performed magic tricks in the future—a point that should perhaps have been aimed more explicitly at parapsychologists and skeptics alike, both of whom routinely seem to think that knowledge of a handful of magic tricks is sufficient to arm them to do investigatory battle with any psychic claimant The authors discuss the value of honest reflection by conjurors of their own work and the pitfalls of deceiving oneself rather than the audience, a phenomenon all too common in contemporary conjuring. They eventually point out that "Conjuring theory ... is descriptive rather than prescriptive," an invaluable point about both the value and limitations of conjuring theory, explaining that "the function of conjuring theory is to describe what magicians do in abstract terms, rather than to lay down rules by which an audience can be deceived." The book concludes with several excellent bibliographies of conjuring theory, probably the best such lists amassed to date.

Although I enjoyed the book immensely—it's a fun and stimulating read—the book's limitations are obvious and inescapable. The absence of an index seems inexcusable and indeed surprising given the authors' academic backgrounds. In light of their professional credentials, one longs for substantive linkage between the magician's pragmatic applications of psychology and the academic study of psychology as a science—albeit that the authors explicitly demur from making any such attempt. Transcripts, be it partial or complete, of the interviews with prominent magicians and conjuring thinkers might have served as fascinating appendices.

Despite the authors' claimed conjuring credentials, they seem to overlook many obvious yet pertinent references: Slydini was the quintessential example of the use of body tension and relaxation as a mis-directive technique, Harry Lorayne probably coined the phrase "time misdirection," "jazz magic" was a term first established by Daryl. In essence this seems to be a book that could have been called "Magic Theory Lite," and as such, for conjurors at least, it should probably be considered an introduction to the subject, with much further reading required.

While the book occasionally breaks some new ground, it often duplicates much that can be found in older works like those cited above, and hence will be substantially familiar to both students of the theoretical literature as well as to experienced if less well-read practitioners. Perhaps the most valuable place this book will find is in service as a general explanation to laymen of the psychology of magic—although how many such readers are out there is questionable. Indeed, if you have an intelligent friend with sufficient interest to warrant investing some time reading arcane material, this will probably serve as the best such guide. The lack of explanation of specific methods in fact carries a dual edge: while it keeps the book free of exposure, the limited use of examples keeps the description rather distant and abstract. Despite its narrow and ultimately ill-defined mission, nonetheless this well-organized and readable volume will serve as an entertaining and informative read for many magi.

Treats from the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History

At the recent magic history conference in Los Angeles, the dealer room was a torture palace for magic book-lovers. What I wouldn't give for the opportunity to buy everything I could fit in a shopping cart in 10 minutes. As it happens, most of the lecturers do not offer printed material to accompany their talks, as these presentations generally reflect cutting-edge and incomplete research, or are perhaps delivered by parties with personal connections who lack a vested interest in publishing or otherwise gathering their work in written firm. Whatever the reasons, out of the many lectures I attended, only a handful had accompanying publications to offer, and I thought it might be of interest to mention them here, as supplies in some cases will not last.

Magic In Theory • by Peter Lamont and Richard Wiseman • 6" x 9" hardbound w/dustjacket • 192 pages • 1999